Diane Bell: Women break 'bronze ceiling' in Central Park

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When Myriam Miedzian lived in New York City, she and her husband walked through Central Park on weekends. “Invariably we would pass by the humongous statue of a Polish king,” she said, describing a pedestal bearing a huge figure of King Jagiello atop a horse.

“What is a 15th century Polish king doing in Central Park?” she wondered.

So she and her husband started taking an informal inventory of the statues in the park — there were 23, including a Venezuelan military leader, a Prussian naturalist and a sled dog — but not one woman among them.

Sure, there were angels and nymphs and fictional females — Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose and Shakespeare’s Juliet (with Romeo). But no women from real life.

So they wrote a blog for “The Huffington Post” drawing attention to the lack of Central Park female figures and came up with a list of 44 women as deserving as men of statues in the park.

But the La Jolla, California, couple didn’t stop there. “We made a decision to do something about it, not just write about it,” Miedzian said.

The blog that launched the Women’s Rights Pioneers monument was published in March 2013. Earlier this week, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, a single statue of not one but three real women was unveiled near 65th Street on a main walkway in Central Park.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth, all historically important advocates for women’s rights, now have their place among the men and fairy-tale figures in the park.

Miedzian first started doing research. She located and enlisted the help of Coline Jenkins, the great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Miedzian also spearheaded creation of a nonprofit committee that came to be known as the Monumental Women Committee, and she currently serves as vice president.

Meanwhile her husband, Gary Ferdman, who has spent his professional career working for nonprofits, began contacting people to raise money. “I’m a latter-day suffragette,” he chuckled. “The best way we can help women is to change men and inform them about the achievements of women.”

The head of the New York Life Insurance Foundation told them she had picked up a neighborhood newspaper, read an article about Miedzian’s mission and soon awarded the committee a $500,000 challenge grant. After all, the father and brother of women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony had worked for the life Insurance company.

Local Girl Scouts learned of the park’s slight to women and began marching up and down the west side of Central Park every Thursday with banners: “Take Women out of the dark, put them in the park.”

They also donated $10,000 from special cookie sales for the project.

The Monumental Women committee raised $1.5 million for the statue and its $100,000 endowment for long-term maintenance. Its members also plan to mount a women’s history education campaign and challenge other cities to include tributes in their public spaces to honor women who played key roles in their history.

Initially, New York City’s parks department had no interest, Miedzian said. Central Park already had too many statues, they were told.

That changed following the naming of Mitchell Silver as parks commissioner in 2014. Jenkins approached him with the proposal after he gave a lecture. “Within a few weeks he announced it was a good idea to erect a statue of a woman in Central Park,” Miedzian recounted.

“We didn’t want to just put real women in the park but to have a very strong purpose for them being there,” said Jenkins, who explained that working on this project came natural to her because her grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were all suffragists.

“The statue isn’t the important thing. It’s the debate around it and the values it represents,” she added, emphasizing the right to vote.

The committee sponsored a design competition, and 91 statue proposals were submitted. The winner was respected sculptor Meredith Bergmann. “We’re thrilled with her,” Miedzian said. “She’s a very talented sculptor.”

The design was revised at the suggestion of park officials. A long list of names of suffragettes was dropped and, in the final version, the figure of former-slave-turned-abolitionist Sojourner Truth joined Anthony and Stanton in conversation at a table in Stanton’s home.

As fate had it, because of the pandemic and New York’s quarantine requirement, the California couple could not attend the culmination of the event they had worked toward for seven years.

“We are so thrilled our dream came to be realized that we can’t complain too much,” said Miedzian, who watched the ceremony remotely. It was livestreamed online at MonumentalWomen.org, available on YouTube and covered by NBC’s “Today” show.

Jenkins, who was interviewed on NBC TV, told me: “This is the latest, greatest bloodless revolution.”

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Diane Bell is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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